Google+ hangouts have many benefits for a library or information service, and I thought it was time to take a little more of a look at what the functionality is, together with ways in which it can be used.
So - first steps - what exactly is a Google+ hangout? I'm presuming that you have at least a passing vague understanding of Google+ - their take on social media networking; if you've got a Google account then you'll already have a G+ account (just click on the little +YourName in the top left hand corner of the black Google bar that appears on the screen when you're using Google functionality. A 'hangout' is simply a way that you can have of chatting with up to 10 colleagues, real time, via video. It's rather like Skype on speed if you will, and it's the rather bigger, cleverer brother of the Johnny come lately Facebook video chat option which only works one to one.
In order to get the most out of the system you do need to have a webcam attached, and a microphone. You'll very often find that the webcam already has a microphone inbuilt, or if you do need to purchase the components seperately they're not going to cost more than a few pounds each from your local supermarket. If you have a laptop of not even particularly recent vintage you'll probably find that you already have everything that you need without having to do anything at all. Even if you don't know where the software is, your computer will be able to figure all of that out by itself.
On every page of G+, over on the right hand side, you'll see something that looks like this:
You can give the hangout a name, see who is already online from a list of your circle contacts, you can see what you look like in the screen below, and when you're ready, you can just click 'Hang out' and you're up and running. That's all that there is to it - it's so simple it's actually painful. You can mute both microphone and camera if you need or want to, and you can exit at any time. If you are already viewing one of your circles, they'll get to see a message that you're 'hanging out' (yes, the terminology makes me cringe as well, but what can we do?) and you can also invite other people as well, simply by starting to type their name. If you don't want that particular circle, you can delete it, so you have complete control over whoever you ask.
When you first start your hangout you'll have a screen that looks like this:
and it's a bit like waiting for the first person to turn up at the party! At the top of the screen you'll see a bunch of menu items - Chat - which allows you to have a group chat using text, the invite button so that you can add more people at any time, Screenshare, which allows you to share your screen. This is a great option - when you click on it, you'll see what screens you have available, and this is what my choice looked like:
So I can choose either of the monitors that I've got working (I use a dual monitor system, highly recommended) the popout G+ hangout screen and a screenshot of the screen that I've included above - it all gets a bit incestuious at that point, so don't worry about it. If you choose a screen, that then takes the place of your photograph, and everyone will see that instead:
So screensharing is also about as easy as it gets. To continue the menu tour - there's a YouTube option so that you can share videos with friends, a 'Google Effects' option so that you can add silly effects to what you look like - propbably not recommended for work, but fun to play around with if you're on a call to the kids or the parents. More seriously, it's also possible to share Google documents within a hangout as well. Consequently, there's a lot of flexibility within the system, and many ways to share content - all of it Google based, of course.
So, how can libraries benefit from the G+ Hangout concept? There are some obvious ideas - small training sessions for example, quick reference interviews, the ability to have staff available for face to face work at a distance, giving a talk at a conference, or book reading discussions. I'm really keen to explore the possibilities and I thought that a fun way to play around with a hangout would be to do some ghost story reading, late in the evening. if anyone is particularly interested, let me know and I'll arrange it.